Posts Tagged ‘Biblical interpretation’

Who is wrong and who is right?

October 26, 2015

You only have to be in a Bible study group for a short time or read a few books about the Bible before you realize that many passages of scripture have  more than one possible interpretation. Perhaps you have had the experience of being in a small group and having someone say “I always thought those verses meant XYZ.” and then you said, “I always thought they were about ABC.” Lets look at Psalm 121 as an example of where that might happen.

Psalm 121

A Song of Ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills- from where will my help come?” What do you think that means? Many people read this as a reference to God. We look up and God will come to our aid. However, in the Ancient Near East the hills were the sites of pagan shrines, the high places. So perhaps the psalmist is asking, “Who will save me from pagan gods?” Or perhaps the psalmist  is aware that bandits live in the hills and is wondering who will save me?  I suggest that all these are plausible readings.

What about verses 5-6? Asking God to protect us from the sun makes some sense. But what about the moon? We don’t typically consider the moon something we need  protection from. We don’t think of the moon as a force which can strike us. In the Ancient Near East, the sun and the moon were considered deities and therefore something followers of the one true God of Israel would need protection from.

I think this psalm was originally about  God’s protection from pagan gods. So would someone be wrong to think about this psalm in a less specific way- about God’s protection in general? Of course not. My point is that more than one interpretation is fine. Now that’s not to say that any and all interpretations are fine. If someone thought that Psalm 121 was about protection from aliens, that might not be a legitimate reading. Although if aliens actually do show up someday, we might have to revisit that.

Psalm 121 is a fairly mild example. We could find many other examples, but you get the idea. What the original audience believed a text is about, what we believe, and what future generations believe may not be the same thing. Our question remains, how do we know who’s interpretation is right? The search for the correct interpretation has divided many a group of believers.

But still, who is right?

And why did God write the Bible in such a way that we can have multiple interpretations? Why wasn’t God more clear?

I think we may be asking the wrong questions, focusing on the wrong things. What if its not about being right? Could our being right not be the thing God is most concerned about?

Perhaps the ambiguity in scripture is to help us listen and learn from each other. Perhaps we are supposed to be learning how to live together without agreeing on everything.

I’m not suggesting that interpretively anything goes. But there is middle ground between having one and only one correct answer and saying that every possible answer is permissible. Brothers and sisters in Christ can faithfully arrive at different conclusions about some things.

We are saved by faith in Christ, not by correct answers. Jesus didn’t command us to be right. He commanded us to love each other, to support each other, to listen to each other. Can we give up being “right” about every single thing in order to live together?



Reading Proverbs 31

November 9, 2014

If you read books or articles about how to read the Bible, one thing that is always mentioned is “the plain reading of the text”. A plain reading is just what you think it is- the text means what it says.We take the text at face value.  For example, “Jesus wept” means Jesus wept.  On the other hand, a plain reading may not work as well for when the psalmist writes that the trees clap their hands. Trees don’t have hands, a literal reading doesn’t make sense. We know that poetry requires a different sort of reading and interpretation.

None of this is news. The church has always held that there may be a variety of faithful ways to read a particular portion of the Bible. Actually this idea doesn’t begin with the church; Judaism has long embraced the idea that there are various ways of reading scripture.

It makes sense to me that we ought to, from time to time, reassess the texts that often receive a plain reading. Might there be another faithful way to read?

This brings us to Proverbs 31: 10-31. Take a moment and read it. What is it about?

If you clicked on the link, you received some interpretive “help” from the editors of the NRSV. They give these verses a title- Ode to a Capable Wife.  If you looked at some other translation your probably also received some interpretive “help”. Such as “The Competent Wife”, or “The Woman who Fears the Lord”, or “In Praise of a Capable Wife”. Perhaps the editors of your particular version offered these titles. Description of a Worthy Woman”. The Wife of Noble Character”.”The Virtuous Wife”. “Hymn to a Good Wife”. These titles are additions by the editors of the particular Bible you use. They were not, ever, part of the original text. They have been added to be helpful. The goal is to give the reader some orientation to what they are about to read.

These titles reflect a literal reading of the text but is a literal reading the only or the most helpful way to read this text? Perhaps these titles actually don’t help us think more deeply about the text.

So what do you think? What questions do you bring to these verses?

The first question we might have is, does this text define what women must be? Or is it meant to describe the reality of women? Or is it meant to open up possibilities for women? Are women being held to impossible standards or are they offered the opportunity to flourish?

Is it significant that the person in these verses is a women? Does the use of female nouns and pronouns mean this text only for women?  Consider texts that have male nouns and pronouns. Are women automatically excluded from them? How do we decide who a text is written for?

Earlier in Proverbs (see chapters 1, 8 and 9), Wisdom is personified as a woman. Is it possible that the woman of Proverbs 31 is also wisdom? Could this be a text that describes the life of a wise person?

The Hebrew word used in these verses can be translated as “wife”, “woman” or “female”. Since the Hebrew word is less precise and more flexible than English, the translators have to make some decisions about which English word is more appropriate. Does using “wife” instead of “woman” or “woman” rather than “wife” make a difference to you? Does it significantly change the meaning of these verses?

There is a way in which asking these questions makes reading Proverbs 31 more difficult. But it also makes the text much more interesting. At least, that’s what I think. I’d like to know, what do you think?


Edited on November 12 in response to the helpful comments of a reader.




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